Humanitarian, Entrepreneur, Dancer
No matter how Rebecca Davis phrased her question, the young boy from Rwanda did not know how to answer it. Over and over again, she asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. But the Rwandan boy was confused, eventually telling Davis that he didn’t even think he’d be alive as an adult, so how could he know?
That broke Davis’ heart – but not her spirit. And it’s become her life’s work to help children like him through her nonprofit organization, MindLeaps, which runs dance and educational programs for street children and out-of-school youth in post-conflict and developing countries like Rwanda.
“And now that kid is in boarding school and is in the top 20 percent of his class and has decided he wants to be an engineer,” Davis said. “It takes so little to help them totally change their mindset. To go from being a kid waiting to die to a kid waiting to be an engineer is kind of mind-boggling.”
Davis has experienced a lot of those awe-inspiring moments since she first decided to use her joint passions for dance and entrepreneurship to help children in need. As an undergraduate at the Fox School of Business, she developed the Rebecca Davis Dance Company, which created contemporary ballets based on historical events and social issues while also serving as a dance-theater training program for 12- to 18-year-olds. It won the Temple University Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute’s Be Your Own Boss Bowl in 2004, which helped Davis officially launch the company the following year in Philadelphia, where she stayed until in 2010.
At that point, shortly after putting on a ballet about the Darfur genocide and inspired by her first trip to Rwanda, she decided to change the company’s mission and develop youth dance programs abroad in three post-conflict and developing countries: Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Guinea.
“It’s been a progression from the idea and motivation in my own life that dance can be a vehicle to change people,” said Davis, whose company changed its name to MindLeaps in 2014. “With my dance company in Philadelphia, the idea was to change people’s perceptions about social issues. Now the iteration is to change the lives of kids who love dance in war-torn countries.”
Davis, of course, is well aware that her programs might only make a small dent in the deep problems that plague a country like Rwanda, which saw its population decimated during the 1994 genocide in which approximately 800,000 people were killed and many surviving children were left orphaned. But she firmly believes that the arts can be a “perfect medium” to discuss horrific issues that are often too difficult to face otherwise and that the joy of dance – something that many Africans love – can help lure homeless children off the streets and into classrooms. On top of its signature dance instruction, MindLeaps also offers English classes and computer training to build up children’s self-esteem so they can attain scholarships and attend boarding schools, which, in turn, can slowly help break the cycle of poverty that has haunted the country for more than 20 years.
“Kids wouldn’t come to the program if there wasn’t dance as an entry point,” Davis said. “At the same time, if it was just dance, it wouldn’t be enough to really help the kids move forward in life.”
Over the last few years, Davis has seen many heartwarming stories of kids succeeding as a result of her program. And the Fox alumna, who spends a quarter of her time overseas and much of the rest traveling across the U.S. for fundraising, meetings, and speaking engagements, is currently working on software that measures changes in the children’s learning skills through a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, which she hopes to license. But she still called it an “emotional roller coaster,” knowing that when kids leave the center, they may return to the streets, where they spend their nights sleeping and their days begging for food.
In the future, she hopes to grow her company’s reach by partnering with a larger international organization so the program can be replicated in different countries. After accruing a Fox education and more than a decade of experience in the business world, she believes she can change the perception of those people who might be initially skeptical about her dance-focused model.
“People are always surprised to hear that’s what we’ve chosen,” Davis said. “And then they’re always impressed to see the results.”
Here’s a glimpse into a day in the life of Rebecca Davis:
Monday, Feb. 22, 2016:
6:30 a.m. Breakfast in Kigali, Rwanda, at the MindLeaps Center.
7 a.m. Answer emails regarding MindLeaps operations in the U.S.
8:30 a.m. Work with our team of five Rwandan dance teachers, and rehearse 90 street children for a presentation.
10:30 a.m. Watch the children as they present their dance performance to six of our U.S.-based board members and Rwandan special guests, and answer questions from the board members as to how they came to live on the streets and why they now come to MindLeaps.
1 p.m. Reveal a special surprise for our kids: UnderArmour clothing. Due to our partnership with American ballet dancer Misty Copeland, her brand sponsor UnderArmour has donated 225 pieces of clothing and shoes. In most cases, this is the first new piece of clothing the child has ever received.
3 p.m. Time to lead a staff meeting with the entire Rwandan team and our board members, at which we discuss how to better communicate between the NY office and the Kigali office.
6 p.m. Dinner meeting with the manager of our English program in Rwanda and our board members to discuss how to leverage basic English skills to help street children access more educational opportunities.
10 p.m. Back to my sleeping quarters at the MindLeaps Center, where I try to keep my eyes open to answer more U.S. emails.
Midnight Time for sleep before another busy day.